Touching the Dragon by James Hatch and Christian D’Andrea Published by Penguin Random House, 325 pages, $29.
In the military since he was 18, James Hatch worked as a naval special warfare operator and a parachutist, fighting 150 missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But that combat violence was only the first battle for Hatch, who faced a number of problems adjusting to civilian life. Hatch describes that lengthy military career and its aftermath in intimate detail with co-author and Harvard graduate Christian D’Andrea in Touching the Dragon.
Hatch’s missions and the ferocious drumbeat of violence that he witnessed and took part in, day after day, are described in painful yet fascinating detail. While searching out bombs and IEDs, many people are—as he delicately puts it—“put down.” His own combat time ended when a bullet shot through his leg, destroying his femur. And in the cinema-like reports of his exhilaratingly terrifying experience, we are right alongside him. Hatch’s sorrows also include the loss of two military dogs that proved to be small, canny soldiers. Partly fellow fighters, and certainly friends, Hatch blames himself particularly for the death of the dog Spike.
Going home injured, Hatch enters the post-traumatic stress disorder world of despair, alcoholism and near-suicide. He gazes hotly into the “dragon” of his dark feelings that sits alongside both his cocky irreverence and intense self-questioning. In what becomes “the second war,” Hatch criticizes the ways that capital “S” Stigma keeps veterans, enveloped by their suffering, from asking for help. His torments reroute themselves positively toward helping the complex combat work of dogs, creating Spike’s K9 Fund, which helps provide ballistic vests.
From page 311: “I came to see that my anger and condemnation were just paltry Band-Aids on a massive soul wound that had been festering for years. I’d seen more American death on that mountain than I did during the rest of my time overseas. Having taken that emotional hit, I didn’t plumb its depths, or address it. I pointed the finger.” ◆